A Pampas tour near Rurrenabaque in the Bolivian Amazon promises riverside lodges, dolphin swimming, anaconda hunting, and piranha fishing; but how do you even get there in the first place? We set out to join on a Pampas tour for ourselves, reaching the jungle via La Paz in Bolivia, and here is what you need to know to do it yourself.
How to Get to Rurrenabaque – The Gateway to The Amazon in Bolivia
Upon arriving in La Paz, the first thing you need to ask yourself is if you would rather take a bus or a plane to Rurrenabaque. This town is where you will need to be in order to start your tour, and is the final largish town before you hit the Amazon.
Now usually as backpackers we would not hesitate to catch a bus, it is usually the cheaper option after all. However, for this journey you are taken on probably one of the worst roads in Bolivia (or even maybe South America) and taken on a portion of the famous “Death Road”. In addition to this, the journey takes anywhere between 14 and 30 hours depending on factors such as wet weather (you are on a dirt road for the majority of the trip meaning mud!), bus reliability (they are old), and traffic coming the other way (one-way roads usually).
With this in mind, we chose to try and book a plane, which takes all of 50 minutes and generally comes with a complimentary snack and drink – what luxury! We had heard that there were 2 airlines available to Rurrenabaque, with one called Amaszonas being more expensive and one called TAM run by the Bolivian military offering cheaper fares.
Whilst in La Paz we made our way to the TAM office and booked flights 3 days in advance for 450Bs each way (around US$130 total cost), the cheapest rate they have. We were pretty happy with this, and when the flight came around we made our way to the military airport (separate from the main airport in La Paz) for our flight!
Booking the Pampas Tour
Once we arrived in Rurrenabaque, we checked into our accommodation at El Curichal and walked the main road to try and find a tour for the following day. We had researched some options online previously, and went looking for these first.
One thing to note:
The minimum price for tours (both Pampas and Jungle- the other main option that goes from Rurrenabaque) as of December 2016 has been set at 1,200Bs. This is a new government regulation and it is illegal for tour operators to offer the tours for less than this. If you are offered less than this, you are breaking the law and the company may not be reputable!
We eventually walked into the offices of Dolphins Tours based on an internet recommendation and the hostel we were staying at as well. After speaking with the lively guy behind the desk and having the tour explained to us, we negotiated our way down to the 1,200Bs price threshold and even managed to score private rooms (thanks to negotiating with some friends who we were joining on the tour).
Having gotten our tour booked, we returned to the hostel and had a few drinks in anticipation of the following days adventures!
Day 1: Heading Into the Jungle
Having meant to arrive at 8:30 for a 9am departure, we casually saunter up at 8:35 after another jam and bread hostel breakfast (at least this one had a toaster we could use!) and get jokingly chastised by Nivardo, the guy we had booked with the day before. None of this matters anyway as by 9am we’re packed in- the 4 of us and 2 French girls.
The landcruiser takes off and we are immediately on dirt road for what will be a 2 and a half hour ride to get to lunch, followed by a similar timed boat ride to get to our private lodging and accommodation for the next 2 nights! The car ride is relatively uneventful, we have heard that people see sloths on this road but all we see are cows and some piglets when we stop for the toilet.
We finally stop off in Santa Rosa for some lunch, and are pleasantly surprised by how good the food is. It is a buffet style meal starting with soup and ending with pasta, rice, beef stir fry, and different plates of vegetables and salad. We even get a bottle of coke to share! The food on this trip will continue with this trend, both of being great and of being a buffet- and you can rarely go wrong with a buffet!
Loaded up on food we make our way 10 minutes more to the river, and pull up to the River Beni to where there are many lanchas waiting to take us to our jungle beds. We hop in and our guide tells us to have three things- our cameras, water, and good luck!
And off we go, and it’s not long before we come across some dolphins playing near the boat. These are the pinkish ones you hear about in the Amazon, and whilst completely different from regular ocean dolphins, they are truly beautiful creatures. This is how most of the boat ride goes, we see animals most times including many different types of birds, dolphins, caiman, turtles, and finally squirrel monkeys when we near the lodge- we are spoilt for choice!
We pull into the lodge and cannot believe our private rooms- they are basic but they are awesome, complete with mosquito netting and private bathrooms- score! And of course the food doesn’t stop coming, as we are given afternoon tea of biscuits, popcorn, and hot drinks. The food continues to be delicious, and once we are done we are given a bit of time before it’s time to head to the “sunset bar” for a bit of sunset watching.
Unfortunately the sun is quite hidden behind some clouds, but that doesn’t stop us buying 20Bs beers (negotiated from 25) and enjoying the company as all the tours end up coming here! We also enjoy the company of the hundreds of mosquitos that come out when the sun exits, literally running from the boat with repellent in hand to get away from them all!
After being completely annihilated by the bugs, we don our head torches and settle in for a night boat ride back to the lodge. Immediately there seems to be many pairs of eyes that almost look like small bright marbles in amongst the reeds and in the water- we are night-spotting caiman left and right! Then we hit the jackpot- hundreds of pairs of eyes of freshly born caiman and our guide decides to pull up very close… not dangerous at all though apparently! We must have spotted over 200 caiman on the ride, giving us caution for wanting to swim with dolphins the following day.
We get back to the lodge and it’s dinner time- another delicious buffet meal (these guys know how to cook) followed by the promise of an early start by our guide… this means we are all in bed relatively early in preparation for an action packed next day.
Day 2: Rain and Changed Plans
We awake to rain which means our anaconda hunting will have to be postponed, instead we have another great meal of buffet breakfast and settle into the hammocks to see if we can wait out the rain. But of course this is the rainforest so after a few hours we are nowhere nearer the sun, and our guide asks if we would like to go find some dolphins to swim with instead. Knowing we will get wet anyway, we pile in and make our way to the little lakes they like to reside in… 25 minutes later we are swimming in the brown murky waters with 3 dolphins around us! It’s pretty exciting but I become a little scared when I get playfully nipped twice on the toe by the dolphins (not what you want in a piranha filled river!) which is just about enough for me to get back into the boat. We are all thrilled though at the experience, which is definitely not something you do everyday!
The rain finally decided to ease up after having lunch (the food remaining amazing of course) so we set out with fishing line to see if we could tempt a piranha or two. What followed was a few hours of watching the meat on our hooks get taken, and the guide pulling in fish after fish… literally not one of us managed to land a fish, but our guide just seemed so happy that we did not mind all that much.
We returned back to our sunset spot after the fishing, ready for another cloudy exit of the sun and a quick beer before hastily exiting before the mosquitos were able to arrive.
Getting back early also meant we got our dinner early; another all-in feast that we greedily ate up (to the horror of the French girls in our group). As this was also our last night in the ecolodge, the company had somehow organised for a bottle of wine and a cake to celebrate the tour! It was a lovely additional touch, and one that we won’t forget.
Day 3: Anaconda (not) and the Return Journey
We awoke excited on our final morning, with the knowledge that we would finally be attempting to find an anaconda in the low-lying wetlands. But first, we were out for a sunrise boat ride or in the case of our weather, a boat ride listening to the animals rising from sleep whilst the cloud stopped the sun from coming through! It did not matter though, as closing your eyes and taking in all of the bird and monkey noises at that time of the morning was truly something special.
After, we headed out to find some actual land in an attempt to discover an anaconda. Because of unusually high waters we were forced to one of the only dry spaces, a small island in amongst the wetlands. Immediately our guide was able to come across some success by spotting a cobra wrapped up sleeping up in a tree. It was interesting as we all thought any snake would be found on the ground! Unfortunately for us that is where the discoveries stopped, with no anaconda showing up for our group.
The end of searching meant we needed to return for our final lunch and return journey. Once again we were served with a great buffet, before grabbing our bags and taking a much faster return journey in our boat. We were still able to spot animals though which was definitely an added bonus.
The animal spotting did not stop there though, as on our way back to Rurrenabaque in the car our driver managed to spot a sloth hanging from a tree- and we thought we’d seen the last of them in Panama!
Finally getting back into town, this signalled the end of our Pampas tour. We all had such a great time despite the changed itinerary, and would love to return again to the Amazon at some point in the future!